Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka

Revised May 12, 2016; February 23, 2019; May 27, 2022; August 27, 2022

There is much confusion about these words. These are key Dhamma concepts, and one needs to sort them out to understand other key concepts like rebirth and Paṭicca Samuppāda. Please read the post, “What is “San”? – Meaning of sansāra (or Samsara)” before reading this post.

saṅkhāra (what we accumulate)

1. “Punnābhi saṅkhāra, apunnābhi saṅkhāra, āneñjābhi saṅkhāra ayaṃ vuccathi avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra“. This is how the short verse of “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” in akusala-mūla Paṭicca samuppāda is explained in detail.

  • Thus only abhisaṅkhāra (“abhi” means higher or stronger), such saṅkhāra with avijjā, leads to the rebirth process.
  • Note that punnābhi saṅkhāra is puñña+abhisaṅkhāra, and similarly, the other two are also abhisaṅkhāra. Also, “apuñña” means immoral,” puñña” means moral,  and “ānenja” means “higher jhānic.” All three modes lead to rebirth in one of the 31 realms (lowest 4 realms with apunnābhi saṅkhāra, realms 5 through 27 with punnābhi saṅkhāra, and realms 28 through 31 with aneñjabhi saṅkhāra, respectively).
  • Thus any kind of abhisaṅkhāra is done with ignorance (avijjā or not knowing the real characteristics of this world of 31 realms: anicca, dukkha, anatta).
  • However, we will see below that we do need to accumulate punnābhi saṅkhāra strategically, mainly to avoid rebirth in the apāyā (lowest four realms) until we attain Nibbāna.

2. As we saw above, “san” is what one acquires when one does anything with sancētana (“san” + “cētana”). saṅkhāra (san+kāra) is simply actions that lead to acquiring “san.” However, it is only “abhisaṅkhāra” or saṅkhāra that arises through avijjā that can lead to rebirth. There is a  difference between saṅkhāra and abhisaṅkhāra:

  • When deeds are done to live in this world, one has to do saṅkhāra. They become abhisaṅkhāra when they are done with greed, hate, and/or ignorance. saṅkhāra becomes abhisaṅkhāra when one starts generating further thoughts (“wheeling process”) about the sense experiences (pictures, sounds, tastes, etc.); see #9 on “Nibbāna – Is It Difficult to Understand?“.
  • Thus an Arahant does saṅkhāra to live; even breathing is kāya saṅkhāra. But Arahant has stopped the “wheeling process” or formed an attachment to what is seen, heard, etc. It is that “wheeling process,” which is detailed in the Paṭicca Samuppāda section, that leads to abhisaṅkhāra.
  • When those saṅkhāra become strong, they are called “abhisaṅkhāra” or “strong saṅkhāra” that can lead to rebirths.

3. Abhisaṅkhāra are three kinds, as mentioned above:

  • Some actions lead to bad consequences during life and also to bad rebirths in the four lowest realms (apāyā). These are “apunnābhi saṅkhāra” or immoral deeds: apuñña abhi san khāra.
  • Actions that lead to good consequences in life and also to good rebirths are called “punnābhi saṅkhāra” or meritorious deeds; these lead to birth in good realms (human, deva, and the rūpa lōkas), thus avoiding rebirth in bad realms where one could get trapped for many eons. Thus it is important to accumulate punnābhi saṅkhāra: puñña abhi san khāra.
  • When one cultivates “lōkiya jhānā” or mundane higher meditative states (arūpa jhāna leading to rebirth in the highest four arūpa lōka realms), via breath meditation, for example, one can be reborn in the four higher Brahma worlds. These also prolong sansāra, and are called “āneñjābhi saṅkhāra“: āneñja abhi san khāra.
  • It is interesting to note that “āneñja” means “no more rebirths” and thus “permanent”: the ancient yogis (including Alara Kalama and Uddakarama Putta) thought these realms have infinite lifetimes and equated the births there to the “ultimate release.” Of course, the Buddha discovered that those also have finite lifetimes, even though extremely long, lasting eons (billions of years).
  • Here those yogis can temporarily suppress all desires for kāma lōka or rupa lōka existences. However, since they had not comprehended the anicca nature, they still have “hidden avijjā” or “avijjā anusaya.”

4. Therefore, it is easy to remember abhisaṅkhāra as those actions that lead to prolonging sansāra (or samsāra), the cycle of rebirths. There is a “latent energy” produced by each such action (abhisaṅkhāra) that will give fruits later.

  • Such “actions” can be done via the mind, speech, or the body; these lead to manō saṅkhāra, vaci saṅkhāra, and kāya saṅkhāra, respectively. The “defiled actions” are abhisaṅkhāra.

5. Does this mean one should not do meritorious deeds (with punnābhisaṅkhāra) because those also prolong sansāra? No. The Buddha emphasized that one should not shy away from doing meritorious deeds.

  • There is a way to do meritorious deeds without prolonging sansāra, and that is detailed in the Kusala-mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda,” an important part of the Buddha’s Paṭicca samuppāda doctrine that has been hidden for thousands of years.  But one must avoid wishing for “things in return” for such meritorious deeds as much as possible because such thoughts are based on greed.
  • In the Abhidhamma language, one should generate “ñāna sampayutta, somanassa sahagata citta” (thoughts generated with wisdom and joy), which is the highest moral (sobhana) citta. Here wisdom means comprehension of the true nature; it starts with getting rid of 10 micchā diṭṭhi and then grows as one understands anicca, dukkha, and anatta to higher levels. Wisdom culminates at the Arahant stage.
  • Any good deed will have good consequences whether one wishes it or not. By wishing for “material things” or “jhānic pleasures,” one turns a meritorious action into either a less potent “ñāna vippayutta” (devoid of wisdom) moral citta or even an apunnābhi saṅkhāra. We will discuss that below.

Kamma (Actions to Prolong sansāra)

Kammic energy is generated when one turns saṅkhāra to abhisaṅkhāra by the “wheeling process”; see above. For example, when one sees an object that is just saṅkhāra due to a kamma vipāka. However, if one then starts thinking about how good it is, or thinks about how to acquire it, then it becomes abhisaṅkhāra; here, one now has INTENTIONS about that object, one is hoping to get something.

  • That is why the Buddha said, “cētana ham Bhikkhave kammaṃ vadami,” i.e., “I say that intention is kamma.”
  • So it is important to remember that kamma is the intention, and even though it can be done by the mind, speech, or the body, all those have their root in mind. We cannot say anything or do anything without a thought in our mind to do so (see the Abhidhamma section for details).
  • For example, the intention to go for a walk is a kamma that does not have any power to generate a good or bad vipāka in the future. That kamma will only get that task done.

Thus the key to Nibbāna is to stop valuing and thinking about kāma assāda (sense pleasures; āsvāda in Sinhala). This cannot happen until one sees the fruitlessness of sense pleasures in the long run (anicca, dukkha, anatta); see the section Assāda, Ādīnava, Nissarana“.

Kamma Bīja (Kamma Seeds) or Kamma Bhava

When a kamma (abhisaṅkhāra) is committed, the kammic potential of that kamma is deposited in a kamma bīja (kamma seed); kamma seed is NOT a physical entity, it is an “energy” or “potential” to bring about an effect in the future. It can also be called a “kamma bhava“.

  • A kamma seed can be compared to a normal seed, say, for example, a seed of an apple tree. The potential to bring about a fully grown apple tree is in the apple seed. However, if the seed is kept in a dry place with no contact with soil, it does not get to germinate. It will germinate if placed under the soil and fed with water and nutrients. Then it can grow into an apple tree which can yield thousand more seeds.
  • Similarly, a kamma seed has the POTENTIAL to germinate or come to fruition if suitable conditions appear; but a  kamma seed is an energy lying below the suddhashtaka stage. It can then yield results with an impact corresponding to the original deed (this holds for both good and bad.) Results are the kamma vipāka; see, “What is Kamma? – Does Kamma determine Everything?“.
  • It is also possible to remove many of one’s bad kamma seeds. When we acquire a “bad kamma seed,” we get indebted to another being. Just like one can be debt-free by paying off existing loans, one can “pay back” old debts that have been accumulated in the cycle of rebirths by “transferring merits” when one does good deeds and also by doing the Ariya Metta Bhavana; see, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidāna)- How Does that Happen?” and “5. Ariya Metta Bhavana (Loving Kindness Meditation)“.

Nothing in this world is permanent (but that impermanence is not anicca); kammic energy in a kamma seed also eventually loses its power, and the “staying power” depends on the strength of the particular kamma. For example, those seeds corresponding to “ānantariya akusala kamma,” such as killing one’s parents or an Arahant, will bring fruits without delay (i.e., in the very next birth) before they lose their power.

Kamma vipāka (Results of a Kamma Seed or Kamma Bhava)

So it is important to distinguish between kamma and kamma vipāka: the first is the action, second is the consequence. When someone laments “this is my kamma” when he/she faces a bad situation, what is meant is that this happens “because of what I had done in the past.” It is a kamma vipāka.

When one does something good or bad, kammic energy is deposited as a kamma bīja (seed), also called a kamma bhava. Then that kammic energy can give rise to kamma vipāka in the future when suitable conditions materialize. There are two ways to avoid kamma vipāka:

  • Just like a seed will not germinate until the right conditions appear (soil, water, sunlight), kamma vipāka cannot materialize until suitable conditions appear. Thus by acting mindfully (not getting into “bad situations”), one can avoid them; see, “Annantara Samanantara paccayā.”
  • Most importantly, we can remove many kamma seeds by doing Metta Bhavana. When we acquire a bad kamma seed, we become indebted to another being; we can get rid of that kamma seed by paying off that debt. The best way to do that is to ask for forgiveness and transfer the merits of one’s good deeds to all beings (since we have become indebted to an uncountable number of beings); see “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation.”

Kamma vipāka (from the germination of seeds) leads to two main consequences:

  • They can lead to consequences during a lifetime (either the present or a future life). These are called pavutti kamma bhava.
  • Some strong kamma vipāka give rise to new existence (in the rebirth process). These are called uppatthi kamma bhava.”

In either case, kamma vipāka is NOT deterministic.  Both types can be reduced in strength or even be made ineffective. This can be done in several ways:

  • When one becomes an Arahant since there is no more rebirth, all kamma seeds that do not get to come to fruition before the death of an Arahant become ineffective in producing a rebirth: Because an Arahant has removed avijjā, the “akusala-mūla Paṭicca samuppāda cycle” becomes ineffective and thus “bhava paccayā jāti” does not get to initiate a new birth.
  • However, even an Arahant is subjected to any kamma vipāka that gets a chance to emerge during the current life, especially the strong ones. Even the Buddha suffered from physical pains during the last years of his life. Even if one transfers merits to other beings (as Arahants do) if the other being cannot accept those merits, then those debts do not get paid off; see “Transfer of Merits (Pattidāna) – How Does it Happen?“.  Thus even the Buddha had a few “unpaid debts” left.
  • We all have done innumerable kamma in this long samsāra. Thus many kamma seeds are waiting to “bear fruit” under the right conditions. This is a key point one needs to digest. Just like a seed can lay dormant for long times and germinate only under the right conditions (soil, water), a kamma vipāka bears fruit only when the conditions are right.
  • Thus most kamma vipāka can be suppressed and avoided (not letting them germinate) by acting with mindfulness (yōniso manasikara). This is where a calm mind helps. An agitated mind is not able to make rational decisions. See “Key to Calming the Mind.”  Working on the Five Hindrances (panca nivarana) that cover the mind is important.

How to do Meritorious Deeds without accumulating Abhisaṅkhāra

Most people, even born Buddhists, do not get this right. They think Nibbāna can be attained by just doing meritorious deeds. Here are some key points to consider:

1. One needs to avoid apunnābhi saṅkhāra (unmeritorious deeds) that will lead to bad life events and/or rebirths, i.e., the four lower realms; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of the Dhamma.” They are “akusala” by definition, but ones of the worst kind; these are called “pāpa” in Pāli and Sinhala and “paw” (rhymes like “cow”) in Sinhala. One needs to avoid this in leading a moral life; see “Moral Living.”

2. Punnābhi saṅkhāra (meritorious deeds) may be accompanied by apunnābhi saṅkhāra if one’s intention is not good. If one does a good deed AND wishes for something in return, that wishing is done with greed. Any good deed WILL produce good results whether one wishes it or not.  They lead to good life events and good rebirths (at or above the human realm). Thus punnābhi saṅkhāra can help in pursuing Nibbāna and should be done without greedy intentions. A Sōtapanna automatically does meritorious deeds with such understanding; we will discuss this in the “Kusala-mūla Paṭicca Samuppāda.” Thus the Aryan way is to do a good deed and share the merits of that deed with all beings, instead of wishing for something in return.

  • Thus one needs to be careful here because one may be acquiring apunnābhi saṅkhāra at the same time. This is a bit complex and is best illustrated with an example. Suppose one donates a meal to a hungry person. That act is inherently one that will produce a good outcome. However, if the person “makes a wish” such as “may I get delicious foods in the future because of this good deed”, that is a greedy thought, a greedy intention (cētana). Thus while this does not negate the good deed, it also could produce ANOTHER kamma vipāka leading to bad life events.
  • This pitfall can be avoided by doing the good deed with a pure intention that is not associated with greed, hate, or ignorance. One gives a meal to a hungry person out of compassion, to quench the hunger. That is all. Here one does not lose any possible benefits of the act.
  • When one starts comprehending anicca (that one cannot maintain anything to one’s satisfaction over the long run), one AUTOMATICALLY stops wishing for “good things.”
  • Furthermore, one can reap more benefits by additionally doing a mental act to quench the potential of previous bad kamma seeds. This is called “giving of merits” or “pattidana,” which is mislabelled as “puñña anumōdana” frequently; see, “Punna Kamma – Dāna, Sīla, Bhāvanā“. One could wish that the merits of this good deed be shared with all other beings. We have built-up debts with all the beings in this long sansāra that needs to be paid off (see “Kamma, Debt, and Meditation“). Thus, sharing the merits becomes a “visaṅkhāra” or “unwinding the power of the previous saṅkhāra.” This is thus one way to lessen the impact of previous bad kamma vipāka.
  • The Buddha said that one always needs to do good, meritorious deeds. Giving is especially encouraged. One could turn these deeds to visaṅkhāra by sharing the merits. By the way, sharing merits does not remove any possible good outcomes for oneself. Those were already acquired in the original act itself. The key here is not to wish for “profits in return” because such thoughts are associated with greed (of course, this cannot be stopped by sheer willpower until one comprehends anicca).

3. The third kind of abhisaṅkhāra, “āneñjābhi saṅkhāra,” is associated with higher (arūpavacara) jhānic states attained via Samatha Bhavana, such as breathing meditation or kasina meditation. They are pursued to achieve higher meditative states and thus are pursued with a greedy thought (pleasure).

4. Jhānic states may be attained automatically when pursuing Nibbāna (not anāriya jhānā but Ariya jhānā). The goal here was to achieve Nibbāna, and thus no saṅkhāra are accumulated in this process. This raises another question: Is seeking Nibbāna another type of craving (āsava)?

  • Nibbāna is attained via removing craving for everything in this world: “rāgakkhayō Nibbānan, Dōsakkhayō Nibbānan, Mōhakkhayō Nibbānan.”
  • “Craving” for Nibbāna is called chanda (one of The Four Bases of Mental Power (Satara Iddhipada). This “liking for Nibbāna” is the key factor that fuels the other three: viriya (effort), citta (thoughts), and vīmaṁsā (investigations).
  • Thus in seeking Nibbāna, one is not craving for anything in this world. One is thinking and working diligently to comprehend the true nature of the world (vīmaṁsā), and with that wisdom gained, the mind automatically gives up craving for anything.

kāya, Vaci, and manō saṅkhāra

1. Sankhāra can lead to body movements, speech, and thoughts; they are respectively called kāya, vaci, and manō saṅkhāra. If those are not done with greed, hate, or ignorance, they are merely saṅkhāra. But if they are done with greed, hate, or ignorance, they become abhisaṅkhāra.

2. Briefly,  manō saṅkhāra are automatically generated based on our gati.  All our thoughts that make body parts move (except speech) are kāya saṅkhāraVaci saṅkhāra are generated when we move our mouth, lips, tongue, etc. to speak.

  • When we think about doing something, we “play it out” in our mind (for example, reciting something silently in mind). That is also vaci saṅkhāra and are called vitakka and vicāra; when we think and contemplate Dhamma concepts, they are savitakka and savicara, with the prefix “sa” denoting “good.”
  • Thus “talking to oneself” is done with vaci saṅkhāra; see “Correct Meaning of Vacī Sankhāra.”
  • manō saṅkhāra are feelings (vēdanā) and perceptions (saññā) that arise automatically due to a sensory input that comes via a kamma vipāka.

3. Thus, it is clear that most enjoyments that we experience come through vaci saṅkhāra. We can be sitting in one place quietly and generating enormous amounts of vaci saṅkhāra, thoroughly enjoying the experience. Most people do this when they go to bed at night while waiting to fall asleep.

  • It is a good idea to try to keep the mind away from defiled thoughts while falling asleep; this can be done by getting into the habit of thinking about a Dhamma concept, or listening to the chanting of sutta (pirith), keeping the volume low (like playing background music); see, “Sutta Chanting (with Pāli Text).” It will be easier to fall asleep and have a restful sleep too.

For more details, see “Kamma are Done with Sankhāra – Types of Sankhāra. “

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